(This story was published in 2007).
By: Matt Coin
When I wrote an article for Outsports in 2005 on my coming out experience as a collegiate tennis player at the University of California at Santa Barbara, I was unprepared for the onslaught of e-mails I was to receive, e-mails that still come in and continue to move me.
In the thousands of messages I received since June, 2005 (900 the first day alone), I heard from people all over the world -- gay and straight, in and out of the closet, star athletes and benchwarmers, and people in general who felt that they could relate. Most of the athletes played individual sports, though there were some in team sports, such as basketball and baseball.
The hardest part about reading the e-mails was to process everything. The e-mails poured in, one after another, and I wanted to read every single one. I was so new to being out myself and I suddenly was presented with thousands of stories from people asking for my support and advice.
Among the e-mails I received, most were positive, but there were a few negative ones as well. The e-mails were an emotional rollercoaster to read; some made me laugh, some made me cry, and some made me very thankful to have support from my family and friends.
It is difficult to put into words the types of e-mails I received, but in an attempt to generalize, the responses congratulated me, criticized me, shared a story, or sought advice. There were also some emails that included pictures, but I’ll get to those later.
The congratulatory e-mails were typically one word – “Congratulations!” However, the lengthier congratulatory e-mails were usually from men who never had the support that my generation has right now.
A 42 year old man wrote, “Congratulations. I am happy for you that your family has offered their support. My partner and I have lived together for 15 years in New Hampshire. Even though all of my partner’s clothes are in my room, my parents think we are friends. I don’t know if I am more hurt by their denial or that they are stupid enough to believe that I buy their act. Anyway, congratulations and good luck!”
The negative responses were the most difficult for me to read. I read several e-mails and postings in response to the article that questioned the accuracy of the support I received. I was on Cloud 9 when I wrote the article, and thought that no one could knock me down.
“You should not have written this article,” began one e-mail. “It is a cookie-cutter story that isn’t true. There is no way that you had such support from a family that grew up in New Jersey. Your story falsely encourages young teenagers to come out of the closet and provides false hope of support, hugs, and kisses. You should really think about that when you go to sleep at night.”
At first, I was speechless. I was tempted to reply, but decided that I did not need to defend myself. The person who wrote this was right about one thing – I did think about his e-mail that night, but I never questioned whether or not I should have written the article. My article was an accurate description of the support I received. Now, two years later, I realize that I am very lucky, and that not everyone has the same support that I have. My goal was not to encourage people to come out, but instead to tell my story because I think that it is important for people to read about positive coming out stories.
The majority of responses I received were from those who wanted to share their stories with me. One of my favorite stories came from a 16-year-old high school boy who wrote, “I am on the swim team at school and came out to my family one year ago. At first, it was hard because no one but my parents knew and they didn’t know if I should go to school dances with girls, but now everyone knows. I am out! Everyone is so cool about it. I feel so good inside. I wish you could have come out at a younger age.”
I came out at the age of 21 and have been told how lucky I am that I came out at such a young age. After reading this e-mail, I realized that overall, things are improving. Awareness is only going to provide more opportunities for those in the closet to feel comfortable coming out.
One of the hardest stories to read came from a college student in Virginia. He wrote, “I joined a fraternity at my school and one day, my roommate walked in on me looking at guys on the internet. He yelled for several of our so called ‘brothers’ and they beat me so badly that I ended up in the hospital. I am lucky to be alive. I never told my parents the real reason I was beaten up.” The e-mail continued with how torn up he is inside. He transferred colleges and is in the closet to this day.
Among the emails from those wishing to share their story with me, were some from people I already knew. These e-mails were by far the most eye opening because it showed me that anyone can hide this secret, even people I already knew.
I reunited with Sean Burns, another Outsports author, who attempted to recruit me to Santa Clara University out of high school. I not only stay in touch with Sean, but he and I earned a silver medal in doubles together at the 2006 Gay Games in Chicago.
One of the professional athletes who wrote me was a tennis player. He and I have become good friends and have visited one another across the country. He has since come out to his family and friends, but remains closeted to his opponents on tour. It was a remarkable experience to watch a friend through his coming out process. He has received only support from friends and family.
A UCSB track athlete who wrote was someone that was immediately under my nose. I had met him at parties, seen him in the training room, and even watched him practice, but I had no idea that he was living his life in the closet the same way that I was. He and I have become friends and continue to keep in touch.
The father of a childhood friend reached out to me and I was unable to respond. This man is still in the closet, married with grown children, and has since moved out of New Jersey with his wife. He trusted me with this information and that was like nothing I had ever experienced. I still keep in contact with my friend, and I feel torn every time I speak to him, but I know that it is not my place to say anything.
I received e-mails requesting advice, which was difficult for me to comprehend because I was still dealing with my own comfort level at the time.
“I am an 18 year old girl on my high school softball team,” wrote one girl from Texas. “Everyone calls me the ‘girly-girl’ on the team, but what they don’t know is that I feel like a boy inside. It is all an act. I am about to go to college to play softball. Should I come out to my team and start a clean slate?”
I did not know how to answer her. I could not ignore someone reaching out for help, but at the same time, I was in no position to offer a perfect stranger advice. I told her that coming out was a great experience for me, but that she would know when the time was right.
Finally, there were those e-mails with pictures, which made me laugh, but perhaps not in the way the author intended. Some of the more tame pictures were simply headshots, which were usually associated with a tame message, such as, “Since I saw your picture, I thought I would share mine with you.” However, the e-mails that included a picture more appropriate for Craigslist requested a date, asked for my address, and even offered a plane ticket. I did not reply to any of these e-mails, but I saved a few (just kidding).
Reading these e-mails has only taught me that writing the article was a positive thing. They have opened my mind even further and I have learned something from each and every story that I have been told. The negative responses were difficult to face, but any author is always going to face some critics.
At the time of my first article, it seemed so common that my family and friends were supportive. Today, after reading the various responses, and meeting various people, I have a totally different perspective. Every single e-mail remains special in its own way, and I only hope that this article provokes a similar response.
Once again, I am not writing this article to encourage everyone to come out or because I think that my story is special and unique. I am simply sharing my story because I want to play my part in opening up someone else’s mind just a little bit.
Matt Coin, 24, works as an IT recruiter in San Diego.